It was the early morning hours when Jesus entered the Temple court and sat down to teach. As crowds gathered around to listen to him, Roman soldiers patrolled the walls of the Antonia Fortress overlooking the Temple, on guard for eruptions of violence. The Temple authorities were still burning from their failure to arrest Jesus the day before. They are determined to stop him. And now, they had designed the perfect trap.
As Jesus teaches, officials of the church drag a woman into his presence and tell him that she’s been caught in adultery. She would likely have been held for some time — perhaps overnight — as they plotted to bring her before Jesus at the most auspicious moment to spring their trap. As she waited, her fear would have escalated. Her humiliation would have been increased by this publicly staged display. They’ve judged her, found her guilty and now they’ve brought her to Jesus and insist that he declare her sentence according to the Law of Moses. She is just a pawn in their game of Gotcha.
"Now, what do YOU say?" they demand of Jesus. They know that if he disavows the Law of Moses his credibility will be immediately undermined. But if he upholds the Law of Moses, he would be supporting a position hard to square with his well-known compassion for the broken and disreputable and at odds with his quickness to forgive and to restore.
But Jesus, as always, manages to strike an impossible balance. He says nothing, but bends over and writes something in the sand. John doesn’t tell us what Jesus writes. It is likely that it was the legal sentence for a woman caught in adultery — stoning. Jesus then looks up at the woman’s accusers and challenges, "whoever is without sin, go ahead, cast the first stone." Jesus’ antagonists and the woman’s accusers were fully aware of the Roman soldiers looking on from the Antonia Fortress. None of them wanted to be the one to start a public disturbance. Instead, one by one, they scurry away like rats.
Having defeated her accusers, Jesus turns and asks the woman, "Has no one condemned you? I don’t condemn you." Jesus relieves her of the burden of her sin. Paul reminds us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Before God, each one of us deserves condemnation. Instead, Jesus offers a costly demonstration of unexpected love. He forgives us and welcomes us into the community of sinners.
Forgiveness is difficult. Receiving forgiveness may be more difficult. Is that why we are so ready to point an accusing finger toward others? Are we so eager to condemn others because we know we deserve condemnation?
Someone wrote that forgiveness resides in the tension between an unerasable past and the promise of the future. As followers of Jesus, it’s in that place of tension that we are called to live — for ourselves as well as for others.
The Rev. Camille Josey is the pastor at Silver Creek Presbyterian Church.